If you’re thinking ‘Hmm, Billy Jaffre – that name sounds familiar,’ it’s probably because you’re seen or heard him on the NHL Network. He’s all over the place there these days, including serving as a regular co-host on NHL Live in the mornings and being featured during On The Fly in the evenings.
He also won a New York Emmy for Outstanding Sports Analyst while serving as the New York Islanders color man, a post he recently left after four seasons.
With the Islanders in town tonight to take on the Kings, he was gracious enough to help us with a game preview…
MM: The Islanders came out of the gate playing well, picking up points in six of their first seven games. Now, they enter tonight riding a nine game losing streak. What happened?
BJ: Right now they’re trying to continue to find an identity. Early on in the season they had – well, minus Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo their two big guys – everybody was healthy and everybody was excited. They were more familiar with (coach) Scott Gordon’s system too. Then, they lost another guy to injury in Andrew MacDonald – who was playing OK, but he’s an important piece to the puzzle because he plays 20+ minutes a night. He’s a real solid, stay at home defenseman who is out of the line-up for a few more weeks. Next thing you know they got some questionable goaltending and all of the sudden they lost that momentum. They’ve had a hard time getting out of it. They’re a team that quite honestly is still in transition. I know fans on the island are getting frustrated hearing that, it’s getting old. But, they haven’t developed enough of a stable of top tier players like the Kings have done.
You mentioned a couple of the defenseman they’ve lost there, how about one they added in James Wisniewski – he’s leading the team right now with 12 points…
He wanted an opportunity to come in and be a number one guy or a top-pair guy. Anaheim figured that he had priced himself out of their cap area. So, this was a perfect fit, at least this year for him. He’s played a lot. Offensively he’s been really good for the team. Defensively, he’s had some issues at times too. He’s a real good skating defenseman though, who has a bit of an edge to him. He’s got a heavy shot. On the outside looking in, watching him play it looks like he’s giving them what they thought they’d get – a good point producing guy, but at times his defense will be average.
Their franchise player, John Tavares, enters tonight with a team worse minus-12 rating. How is his play developing?
I’ll first say, I really like John on and off the ice. He’s a tremendous person with an unbelievable work ethic. With regard to his plus-minus, if you’re going to grade him on that, it hasn’t been as much of a success early on. I (would assume) a lot of that has been from that (recent bad) stretch. He’s a guy who’s going to have to really continue to get stronger in battles down low, work on his positioning and make sure that he can handle the other big centerman. He knew that coming into the league, it was going to be tough. At times, he struggled last year. There was actually a period of time in February where he was struggling to score, but his defensive game picked up a higher jam level and he started getting better positioning – things picked up. That was a real positive at that time.
And this year?
I think that number (the minus) is not a reflection on his effort. It’s somewhat his play, but it’s also the team play in general. This is a real beat up team right now. Even guys that are in the line-up are struggling with confidence. Bruno Gervais and Jack Hillen are just two examples. They finished last year playing a ton and didn’t play to start the year. So, their confidence is probably in question. And that translates to struggling on the ice. When you’re not all on board, together – when you’re struggling like that – it’s going to lead to some minuses.
How about the play of Doug Weight? He’s their captain – but, here’s a guy who was thought to be on his way out of the league basically and then over the last three summers he’s signed one-year deals to keep coming back with the Islanders…
Every team needs need a veteran presence, no different than Mr. Lombardi bringing in Willie Mitchell this year and Ryan Smyth last summer. Now, those guys are a little younger than what Dougie was when he came in and are also surrounded by, I think you could argue, better players overall. But, Doug Weight is another guy that I call one of my favorites in the game. There’s not a higher class individual than Doug. He shoots from the hip and he gets it – he understands what the business is all about.
He trains as hard as he absolutely can. He’s had some tough luck with injuries the last few years. Yet, he’s a real good sounding board for their young guys. There’s nothing Doug hasn’t been through – he’s won a Stanley Cup, he’s been traded, he’s been a captain, an assistant, everything. He’s had full 82-game seasons, he’s had injury plagued seasons. So, there’s nothing he hasn’t been through and that kind of experience is invaluable. The Islanders may look back at this in a few years, if they finally get good, and they might say ‘Boy we struggled, but these young players – Matt Moulson, he’s not young age wise but experience wise, John Tavares, Blake Comeau and Josh Bailey – they really relished the opportunity and really took advantage of the opportunity to play with a guy like Doug Weight.’
The games have been getting a bit more physical lately for the Kings. Given the way the Islanders have been struggling, would you expect this to be another physical game or do you see them looking to try and make this a skill game?
Well they always want to get more physical. If they feel some of their skill guys have been getting handled more physically, then Scott Gordon may look to put Trevor Gillies back in the line-up. Without knowing anything specific, here is why I think he may put him in there – this is a pretty bug Kings team. Physically, they’re a pretty solid, good sized team. And so Trevor might get his opportunity to get back into the line-up and provide that support, that depth guy, that bench guy where if it gets physical…I watched that LA-Dallas game the other night and it was phenomenally intense. It was incredibly physical.
But, Dallas is a Western rival of Los Angeles. And while in the old days for some reason the coast-to-coasters had a pretty decent rivalry, the Kings and Islanders only play each other about once a year now. So, knowing that it isn’t as much of an intense, heated rivalry, I wonder if LA will generate the same type of emotion. Regardless, it wouldn’t surprise me if Trevor was back in the line-up because Scott Gordon knows he needs to do something to get his team a win – after what seems like forever without one.
Over on the LA side, why do you think a guy like Jonathan Quick still hasn’t received the credit he probably deserves around the league – especially given his strong play again this year?
Well, I think part of it is the fact that the Kings drafted these other goalies, in particular Jonathan Bernier, that they promoted so much. By promoted, I mean they pumped him. They said, ‘Look, this is the goalie of the future.’ Now whether they said it or some draft person or some so-called expert said it, the point being that as soon as he was drafted he was the guy of the future. So, what does that mean? It means that anybody that sits there before Bernier arrives is just warming the seat for the guy of the future.
They have a guy in Quick who showed well last year, but he took a lot of heat for kinda petering out near the end of the year. I think he would admit he wasn’t his best near the end, post Olympics. And that was a big let down almost for him. But, the whole Kings team was good last year. They all didn’t tucker out at the end, they just weren’t as good at the end. If they were that good as a team, maybe they would have advanced past the first round. That’s just part of a learning curve, being a goalie and a team in the NHL. Yet for Quick to come back and coming out of the gate so strong, he’s earned a lot of respect around the league. That’s been one of the real respect factor stories so far this season. Quick has really re-established himself as the guy, instead of the guy who’s the future guy in Bernier.
You mentioned Ryan Smyth earlier. He’s a guy you saw day in, day out after he was traded to the Islanders during the 2006-07 season. Any commentary on what you’ve seen from him in LA?
He’s fit in beautifully there. If you go back to the trade, I remember people saying ‘Wow, they’re bringing in a guy who has been up and down the last few years, with a big cap hit. Wow. That’s a strong move by Dean Lombardi.’ But, you know what, it’s worked out awesome. The other day when we spoke with Justin Williams on NHL Live he was quick to speak about the influence Smyth has had on other guys on the team. Like Doug Weight, he’s done it all. He’s literally left his teeth on the ice for the team in more than one location. When he was with the Islanders I remember the guys really liked him. You can see what he brings to a team – winning, attitude and energy.
I equate Ryan Smyth to Andrew Brunette a bit. Smitty has won more than Brunette, but people said these were the type of guys that wont survive the NHL post lockout. Well, all they keep doing is hanging in there and doing pretty darn well. Ryan has really acclimated himself there and he looks to me like he has the old ‘new lease on life’ as an LA King. He looks like he’s having a ton of fun – more fun than he was having in Colorado, that’s for sure.
It’s still too early to make much of the standings in the Western Conference and even around the league. However, overall, do you see the Kings as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this season or are they still a few players away?
Um (really long pause). Put it this way, if nobody else makes any moves, they’re a legit contender – especially when they get everybody healthy. But, a bunch of teams are going to make moves. The teams that are really, really good – like the Kings…I like their depth at just about every position really and I like their size, they seem like they can handle a more physical playoff series now and I like their experience factor, in the sense they were in the playoffs last year and learned how to battle against Vancouver. So, the good news is I don’t see a glaring weakness.
Could they add some more depth up front? If they could figure out a way to get another top nine forward, they could end up with some incredible depth. I like this team. I like what they’ve done and I love the patience they’ve been able to have in developing this team. Anytime you have two good goalies you feel equally as confident with, that’s a great infrastructure, a bedrock to have. You grow from there out with the defense. They have really good guys back there. Come playoff time, one or two of the guys might be a wild card. They have a few stallions back there who once and a while like to run free. They occasionally have to be reigned in. But, I think they learned a lot from last year’s experience against Vancouver.
Thanks again to Billy for sharing his opinions.
We’ll see how tonight plays out when the Kings take on the Islanders at Staples Center.
Interview with Kelly Hrudey – former Kings and Islanders goaltender
photo courtesy of Vision Sports